Jesus Distinguished from Santa Claus

The following is a guest post by Tyler Recker.

I must lead with a confession. I jacked this idea from an illustration Kevin used in a sermon.

All the kiddos are gearing up for a midnight visit from Santa Claus, the old, fat man who sneaks in through our chimneys to magically leave exactly what the children want and eat cookies, if the kids are “good” and not “naughty”. In other words, the kids on their own righteousness merit their reward.

Because this is the Bible belt, where the Gospel has more often been assumed than it has explained, this is the mindset many people have about God. I would go as far as to say this is the mindset most people have about God. If I am good, he and I are good. If I am bad, he’s ticked.

As the student minister, it’s been intriguing how long it takes students to catch on to the idea of grace, and let go of the idea of works. I recall teaching a 5 week series “What is the Gospel?” and leading the middle school dudes through an intense study of salvation. At the time, our efforts to push kids to read their Bible and make disciples were being interpreted through a bad grid. The grid said “This is what I need to do to be accepted by God.” So we launched into the effort to explain the Gospel. And after weeks and weeks of re-training their minds, repeating passionately the same question week after week, and a certain mindtrick I picked up in school at New Orleans (joke.), they had finally gotten it. I could ask what it took to be saved, and they could answer “believe in Jesus as Lord and what he did on the Cross” (with the caveat that Lord means boss, and that means he runs my life now).

We were doing it. We were getting past the silly mindset that we could appease the wrath of God kindled at our rebellion by showing up at church and reading a few Bible verses.

And then I got a few membership covenants across my desk. Not one. But three. Three membership covenants from students who were regulars in my Circle group. The question was some form of “If you stand before God, and he asks why you should be let into heaven, what will you say?”

“I try to read my Bible and make disciples.”


The wording of the question had changed, and the robotic response was no longer there. The concept hadn’t permeated their mindset.

But even worse than this…as an adult, it is, at times a tremendous struggle to believe that God loves me by grace apart from my performance.

I mean, how many of us have committed some grievous sin (“grievous” like neglecting the Spirit, or yelling at our wife, or losing our cool with some idiot on the road, or failing to make disciples, or any other sin) and then we feel like God doesn’t want to talk to us and we try to hide like Adam? Our performance lapsed, so we think our relationship is strained.

We are all prone to believe silly myths about our own righteousness being the requirement for salvation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says regarding the goal of Christian community,

…they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community. Their fellowship is founded solely upon Jesus Christ and this “alien righteousness”.

I’ve often quoted Luther’s contention that the Gospel must be beat into our heads continually. One of the biggest needs of Christian community is to preach the Gospel to one another, when our brother or sister fail to apply the Gospel to their own lives.

Santa Claus says be good and get on the nice list and you’ll get some presents. If you’re bad, you get coal, which is a bummer unless you have a long time to wait for it to turn into diamonds. Of course, “good” is kind of relative to the other kids and no specific standard.

Biblically, this fleshes out like this: Jesus is on the nice list, every one of us is on the naughty list which is a understated way of saying “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:12)

In conclusion, I’ll push all my chips to the center and wonder why we would want to teach our kids that there are such thing as “good kids” when it seems to undermine the Gospel?


4 thoughts on “Jesus Distinguished from Santa Claus

  1. Hi Tyler!

    Does telling our kids that they did something good, or, more specifically, giving them a reward for doing the right things undermine the Gospel? I’m not sure.

    Here’s an example: Let’s say you are potty training your little toddler and they, on their own, do their little business on the potty? Shouldn’t you reward them by saying “Good baby!” and maybe even give them a cookie, so they want to do the right thing next time? Maybe that’s not a good example: How about your middle school child coming home with straight “A”‘s on their report card? Shouldn’t we as parents be teaching them that when they work hard, and study, they will achieve, and that with the achievement comes a reward? Like maybe they can go to the movies or bowling with their friends? What do you say to your kid when they do their chores with a great attitude? Do you say “You did a great job!”, so they will be encouraged to repeat that behavior again and again, and so they will learn the importance of listening to authority? Of course you do.

    I don’t think you can undermine the Gospel. If you’ve spent 5 weeks going over what the Gospel is with anyone, and after that they still don’t understand what the message is, then they are not saved because they have been blinded (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). The truth is you can teach an 8 year old child how to answer the question that was on the membership covenant correctly, so how does a middle school student, after weeks of exposure to the truth about God, man, sin, Jesus, and conversion, not be able to come up with the correct answer to that question? Either they were not presented with the true Gospel (which I find hard to believe), or they have been blinded by the enemy, and all we can do is pray.

    I am glad when the unsaved have the wrong answer to the question of why they should be allowed into Heaven. It makes it a LOT easier to share the Gospel with them and for them to realize that they have to change their minds about what they were thinking, once they have been exposed to the Truth. I agree with you about the “Bible Belt”. I think it’s a LOT harder to witness to an unsaved person who KNOWS how to answer that question. So many people in the South have “walked an aisle”, or, worse yet, have been brought up from when they are 5 years old to know the answer to “Are you going to Heaven when you die, and why?” “Of course I know Daddy! It’s because Jesus died for my sins, and I asked Him to forgive me and made Him my Lord!”. Those people pass all the “tests”, except the last one, and that’s the only one that counts.

    I’ll leave you with one question: When you saw the wrong answers on the covenant, did you think: “They are saved and just don’t understand what that means”, or did you think “they are not saved”, and go right back into evangelism mode? I wonder if just because they are our kids, or the kids of families in the church, we find ourselves unable to accept the possibility that they aren’t saved?

    • Vince,

      I appreciate your comment very much. I’m thrilled to get some discussion going on this blog.

      I am not questioning whether telling kids they DID good undermines the Gospel. I am questioning if telling kids they ARE good undermines the Gospel. To use the analogy of taking an exam, it’s fine to let kids know when they get the right answer, but they should also know that they fail the overall exam because they can’t in their own strength meet the standard of holiness.

      Given, the Gospel is powerful and can break through the hardest of hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, when I speak of the Gospel being undermined, I mean this. The foundation of the problem is that men have sinned and offended a holy God and are by nature and practice sinners. We must come to grips with this before there is a need for a Savior.

      So, if I believe that I am good, then I don’t believe that I need a Savior, and thus the Gospel is undermined.

      However, as I said before, the Spirit-blessed Gospel can overcome any hurdle, but the Spirit most often works through means. Means like good parenting, faithful preaching, and accurate explanations of truth. I have seen the Spirit move at many times in spite of the preacher, etc. and have often prayed that He would move in spite of my own inadequacy, however the fact the Spirit can work in spite of that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t work to correct places where I seem to be communicating the wrong thing.

      I am very quick to acknowledge that kids can grow up within the visible church but never be part of the true Church because the enemy and their own rebellion blinds their hearts from genuine faith. This could manifest itself in either pharisee-like religion or in hypocritical double lives.

      However, I think we ought to be careful to discount the genuineness of someone’s salvation based on one question, even when their life seems to be bearing other fruit.

      The issue is that not all wrong thinking goes away at the moment of conversion, so while it is possible that these kids weren’t saved, it is equally possible that a person can be saved and while superficially answering a membership covenant, they may have a knee-jerk response and answer poorly. Wrong-thinking often dies very hard. And it often takes a very long time for deeply-held truths that we have worked out in our hearts and minds to be the new “default” when thinking about such questions.

      Because in the South we have for so long treated sanctification like it was justification (as I laid out in a previous post), it’s very easy to see why a genuinely saved person could answer in that manner.

      Regardless of their eternal state, which I can not know with absolute confidence, the wrong answer to that question afforded me the opportunity to clarify the Gospel…whether that was pushing them towards sanctification or towards conversion…I don’t know…

      Again, thanks for the commnt. I appreciate the discussion.

  2. Tyler,

    Thanks for the clarification. I too, would like to encourage lively discussion on the blog, but now you’ve made it impossible to stir things up on this subject any longer by convincing me that you’ve made a great and valid point!

    I hope you can think of something else I’ll need you to clarify soon!

    Meanwhile, just for discussion, how about adding a meeting to the youth group just so they can invite schoolmates that might not be saved. This meeting would have maybe some singing, and discussion questions that could open up opportunities for sharing the Gospel…what do you think?

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